Is it cheaper to travel by plane or take a train? As in many things, the answer is: it depends. Just comparing the costs of the tickets for air travel is not the end of the story. There are other considerations.
Let's look a little more closely at whether it's better to fly or go by train.
Flying almost always takes less time than train travel. In the United States, freight trains have the right of way and passenger trains sometimes have to wait to let freight trains pass. Longer trips cross-country can add substantially to train travel times.
Europe has more high-speed rail trains that can make rail travel times more competitive with airplanes, particularly when you add the check-in time it takes at the airport to pass through airport security lines. The United States only has one high-speed train, the Amtrak Acela, which runs from Boston to Washington, D.C. with several stops in-between.
However, travel time by itself is not the total time it takes to make your trip.
Total Travel Time
Although travel time by plane is obviously faster than going the same distance by train, you have to consider the total travel time for comparison.
The time needed to pass through airport security means that, in some cases, you need to arrive at the airport up to two hours before your flight. With trains, you can show up 15 minutes before your departure time, locate your platform and hop on board.
If you are traveling in Europe, Eurostar only asks that you arrive 30 minutes before departure. And, European train routes can take you to the city centre of most destinations.
In the past, ticket prices on train routes were usually less than airplane fares. However, competition between airlines and the emergence of budget airlines has changed the pricing landscape and lowered airfares. You have to check current prices on both for your specific route and time of travel to get a good comparison of costs.
As airlines have gotten more competitive with lower airfares, they have looked for ways to increase profits by charging other fees. One of those ways is by charging fees to change your ticket. Once you buy your ticket, you're locked in unless you pay an additional fee to change it.
Conversely, Amtrak allows you to change your ticket to another time or day for free or even cancel it and get a full refund. If you miss your train's original departure time, you can simply hop on the next train without having to pay an additional fee.
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Amtrak allows you to bring on board two personal items and two pieces of luggage. Plus, you get two checked bags for free.
Most airlines will allow you to carry on one personal item, but you will pay extra for all checked luggage.
As airlines have tried to get more passengers on every plane, seat comfort and legroom have gotten more restricted. Airplanes have a seat pitch with about 30 to 32 inches of legroom whereas seats on a train trip usually have 39 inches or more. And trains don't have that dreaded middle seat.
Wi-Fi availability on airplanes is limited and expensive. Wi-Fi on trains is free, but the signal can be slow and intermittent. If you need to charge your electronic devices, trains do have power outlets, which are not normally available on airplanes.
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Airports vs. Train Stations
Airports are usually located on the outskirts of the city, sometimes miles away. Train stations, on the other hand, are typically located in the downtown areas near the city center.
If you're flying by plane, you have to add in the drive time it takes to get to the airport to your total travel time. Train stations are usually easier to get to and you don't have to pass through security.
In addition, when you arrive at the airport of your destination, you'll either have to take a cab or rent a car to your final destination. On the other hand, if you're traveling by train, you will arrive at the station downtown and may be closer to your final destination.
Amtrak is well-known for having delays, especially on long-distance trips when passenger trains have less priority than freight trains. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Amtrak trains have a 73 percent on-time history and major airlines have a 79 percent on-time record. Check the stats for the route you plan to take.
When considering climate change, trains win this one, hands down. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the carbon footprint from CO2 emissions is much lower for trains than planes. So, if you want to be friendly to the environment, traveling by train would be your choice to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Compare Train vs. Plane for U.S. Routes
Let’s look at a couple of routes in the U.S. and see how trains vs. planes compare.
New York to Washington, DC: A round-trip ticket on Amtrak will cost almost $400, and take a little over three hours. Round-trip airfare will cost $300 with a travel time of 1 hour and 20 minutes. For this trip, the train ticket costs more, and the travel time is longer. But when you add in another hour or so for the time at the airport, the travel times are almost equal. For this route, you have to choose between the convenience of the train or the hassle of going through the airport. It's a personal preference of which way to go.
Los Angeles to San Diego: A round-trip on Amtrak will cost $70 compared to a round-trip airfare of around $250, depending on the time of day. Flight time is a little over 50 minutes, while the time on the train is 2 hours 40 minutes. However, when you add in about one hour to arrive at the airport and pass through security, the travel times get closer. In this case, which is more important? The cheaper ticket on the train or the slightly shorter travel time by plane?
These routes are just two examples of the factors to consider when trying to decide between going by train or by plane. Ticket prices are constantly changing so you have to check current schedules and prices before making your decision.
Generally, you'll find that ticket prices and total travel times for trains and planes are similar for short-haul trips under three hours. Travel times by train are considerably longer for cross-country trips when you might spend one or two nights on the train, but you could make the same trip in one day by airplane.
- Bureau of Transportation Statistics: Flight Operations Arriving On Time by the Largest U.S. Air Carriers
- Bureau of Transportation Statistics: Amtrak On-Time Performance Trends and Hours of Delay by Cause
- Environmental Protection Agency: Fast Facts on Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- Simple Flying: Why Flying Is Often Cheaper Than Rail Travel
- Amtrak: Amtrak vs Flying: Pros and Cons
- Data World: Data analysis Trains vs. Planes: What's the Real Cost of Travel?
- Amtrak: Acela
- TravelBank: Train or plane? Which is Better Between NYC and DC?
James Woodruff has been a management consultant to more than 1,000 small businesses. As a senior management consultant and owner, he used his technical expertise to conduct an analysis of a company's operational, financial and business management issues. James has been writing business and finance related topics for work.chron, bizfluent.com, smallbusiness.chron.com and e-commerce websites since 2007. He graduated from Georgia Tech with a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering and received an MBA from Columbia University.